Riley, '15, Spends Year Away from Albion to Help Friend After Paralyzing Injury

March 04, 2013

On July 27, 2011, Kevin Riley, an Albion College junior lacrosse player from Trumbull, Conn., was spending a relaxing summer day with one of his best friends, Chris O’Brien. They became friends in sixth grade, eventually spending every summer day together despite the fact that they attended rival high schools. On this particular day, they headed to Block Island, R.I., to savor a day on the beach.

"It was a perfect day," says Riley. "There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we met some awesome people while we were hanging out."

The last thing on anyone's mind was tragedy, but that's what they got. As the day was drawing to a close, the friends decided to race to a buoy before they headed home. Since O'Brien was a Division I swimmer at the College of Charleston, he allowed Riley a head start. As Riley began swimming, he expected his friend to pass him relatively quickly, but he didn't. That’s when he looked back.

"I turned my head back and saw a crowd gathering on the beach right near the water, and that's when I knew something was up," Riley recalled. "When I got to the beach, Chris was conscious, and he was actually calm, which was nice to see because that made the rest of us calm."

O'Brien had become injured diving into the water. Fortunately, there were three doctors on the beach who knew how to stabilize his neck and back as they pulled him out of the water and onto the sand. O'Brien was taken to the hospital, and when Riley and his friends finally made it to the emergency room, they were given the news—O'Brien was paralyzed from the neck down.

For the remainder of O'Brien’s time at the hospital in Providence, Kevin made the two-hour drive to be with his friend three or four days a week. He would sometimes stay overnight to allow O'Brien's parents to have some time to go home.

When asked what it was like visiting his friend in critical condition, Riley smiled and said, "When you got in that room, [Chris] lightened the mood immediately. You had no idea the kid got injured."

O'Brien got sick multiple times during his stay in Providence, including pneumonia, but after about a month in intensive care, he was ready to be moved closer to home. He was relocated to Gaylord Rehab Center in Wallingford, Conn.

This was around the time that Riley was getting ready to return to Albion for his sophomore year. But he was conflicted.

"I knew Albion was a really good place for me, but I wasn’t sure if I could leave my friend," Riley admitted. "In fact I knew I couldn't leave him."

After struggling through the decision in his mind, Riley finally talked to his dad and told him that there was no way that he could move so far away from O'Brien. His father was completely supportive of his decision.

Riley also called Albion's men's lacrosse coach, Jake DeCola, to discuss not returning to the team in Albion.

"After I told him the whole story, coach said to me: 'Is Chris family to you?' And I said to him, 'Chris is my brother, and I will do anything for him.'"

After that, he had his coach's full support.

Riley contacted Eastern Connecticut University, where he had been accepted before attending Albion after high school, and started classes there the very next week. Living at Eastern Connecticut also allowed him to be closer to the Wallingford Rehab Center, which was where he spent every weekend.

When he would visit the rehab center, Riley wasn’t able to help much with the actual therapy sessions, but he gave himself another important role in the healing process; he became O'Brien’s motivator.

"I knew in my head, and Chris knew in his head, that he was going to be walking again," Riley said. "I took it upon myself to just push him, and tried to motivate him as much as I could."

When the injury first occurred, the doctors estimated a 95 percent chance that O'Brien would never walk again, and that he would always be paralyzed from the neck down. But within four weeks, he was able to make small movements with his arms, and had trace signals of movements in his upper body. His doctors were astounded to see his rapid improvement, which was attributed largely to his athletic ability before the injury.

O'Brien was able to go home around Thanksgiving, and he gained a lot of local support. Neighbors donated wheelchairs, built ramps, and offered to drive him anywhere that he wanted to go.

Now that O'Brien was home, he attended outpatient therapy every day. During his time there, he did much of his therapy in the pool, and Riley was able to help with the actual therapy process.

"I would hold him up, and his brother and I would help him walk in the water," Riley recalled. "His legs would start to move in very small bits, but it was unbelievable just to see his leg move even that small bit."

Fundraisers became an important part of helping O'Brien get the best treatment possible. One of these events was put on by family friends and was called "Music in the Grass," where a collection of talented teenagers performed in an effort to raise money. Enough money was raised to send O'Brien to Atlanta for advanced therapy, where he is able to work with machines that help him walk.

Since O'Brien was able to go to Atlanta for therapy, Riley believed he was ready to return to Albion. He had visited Albion once during his spring break from Eastern Connecticut, and he said that the visit made him miss playing lacrosse, and miss spending time with his Briton teammates.

"I watched the team play when I came to visit, and they were awesome," Riley said. "They were so much better than when I left, and I felt a void from not playing lacrosse."

Riley called DeCola soon after his visit and let him know that he wanted to come back, and the process for returning to Albion for the fall 2012 semester began. A communication studies major, Riley met with Sally Walker, the vice president of student affairs and dean of students, and faculty members to make the transition as smooth as possible.

"Sally Walker was unbelievable in that process," Riley said. "She really truly helped me out, and she pushed every button that she could to get me in the door.

"Being back playing feels great," he added. "I missed being gone and to play lacrosse again has really gotten my head straight. With all that I have experienced in the past year and seeing Chris' improvements, I have had a lot more motivation on the field. I play for him, his name is on the side of my helmet. He is what drives me to push myself."

When asked what he would want people to take away from this story, Riley said that he wants people to gain inspiration from O'Brien's courage throughout his ordeal.

"Chris' slogan is 'determination,' and he is such an inspiration to do good things and to push himself to the absolute limit," Riley said. "The things that he has done, and the records that he has shattered, and where he is now, are just so unbelievable compared to what doctors expected.

"His personality through the entire process has been incredible. He just kept driving, pushing, and he stayed inspired," Riley added. "And he inspired others at the same time, and that's what makes him truly amazing. I just want people who hear his story to know that no matter what situation hits you, even if it seems like you can't make it out, that you can't go anywhere, you can always take another path and turn it into something better rather than having a negative attitude."

See O'Brien's "Determination" Facebook page for more information.